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Serving Downstream


A few weeks ago, I was hiking a remote mountain trail in the backcountry of Northern Colorado when I stumbled upon a small, rambling freestone stream.  The undisturbed vegetation on each side suggested no one had traveled this way for some time, yet the stream, unwatched and unprompted, had quietly done what it was built to do, which was to help transition the high-country snowpack into much-needed fresh water, serving countless people downstream.

As I stepped across the fallen-log footbridge and made my way deeper into the woods, I thought about how important the stream was to the people it served, and I began to think about leadership and the age-old question of whether leaders are built or born.

I’d recently found myself engaged in a robust conversation about what leadership is and how leaders are developed.  An important function of leadership, I insisted, is to shepherd people through transitional events, to show them the way, and to ensure the success of the mission and the members.

My colleagues mostly conceded the point, but insisted the best leaders are born, not built, and that those unlucky enough to try leading without the magical X-factor are doomed to a lifetime of toil and ruin.

Leadership, it turns out, is a set of skills that can be learned and mastered through equal parts empathy, self-awareness, and hard work.   I’m convinced that good leaders are no more born than good quarterbacks, good history teachers, or good astronauts—certainly some of us have a head start on others due to the vagaries of natural aptitude, timing, and the resources at our disposal, but we all start from somewhere and grow into what we eventually become.


Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, is necessary to meaningfully connect with team members and coworkers.  It allows us to see problems and challenges from others’ points of view, and to consider how major decisions and changes will affect them.  Admittedly, some people are more naturally gifted in this area than others, but effective leaders recognize and value disparate perspectives, and they consider the feelings of others when making important decisions.

Just like any other skill–like throwing a perfect spiral or executing a precision re-entry to Earth’s orbit –empathy can be developed with intentional practice.  According to Daniel Goldman, author of “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence,” emotional empathy can be developed by tuning in to facial expressions, vocal patterns, and other non-verbal cues that communicate how others are feeling from moment to moment.  Picking up on these nuanced clues requires that we slow down, pay close attention, and search for the meaning beneath the words.  This intentional focus on others helps combat some of our baked-in biases, allowing us to remain open to ideas and perspectives different from our own.

It can be difficult to practice empathy when tension is high, especially when time is short and success is on the line.  It’s often helpful in these instances to simply presume positive intent–that is, to begin each conversation by reminding yourself that the people you work with are most likely interested in solving problems rather than creating them, and with making things better rather than making them worse.  This simple step provides a quick emotional time-out, and it helps to positively reframe negative, high-stress interactions.  Mentally placing yourself in another’s shoes and assuming that their position is grounded in the best of intentions is a great way to practice empathy.  It’s hard to exercise effective leadership if you’re convinced your colleagues are out to get you.


Anthony Tjan, writing for the Harvard Business Review, suggests that self-awareness–the ability of people to see themselves as others see them–is critical to cultivating authentic workplace relationships and developing effective leadership strategies.  Leaders who understand their inherent gifts and shortcomings can boost their strengths and shore up their weaknesses, often by leveraging the strengths of other teammates.  It’s virtually impossible for anyone—even the best of leaders—to be above average in all areas, so it’s vital that leaders know themselves well enough to assemble a team that can fill in the gaps.

Self-awareness can be developed a variety of ways.  Personality tests like Myers-Briggs and StrengthsFinder are fantastic methods of identifying strengths and weaknesses, as is simply asking a trusted colleague, who—believe me—knows all about your weaknesses and can’t wait to share them with you.

Every effective leader I’ve known has a relationship with at least one mentor, which is a great way to receive unbiased, constructive input, and many organizations use some form of multi-rater evaluation or 360-degree feedback model for leadership team members.

It’s often tempting to treat negative feedback as a personal attack, and people in positions of authority sometimes go out of their way to avoid receiving input that falls short of fawning praise.  But leaders who solicit and embrace these difficult conversations are usually perceived as humble, trustworthy, and confident, traits that tend to inspire loyalty and team unity.  Self-reflection leads directly to self-awareness.

Hard Work

The intentional development of empathy and self-awareness is no small task, in fact, it requires discipline, dedication, and a healthy dose of the third part of the leadership recipe: hard work.  Positions of formal leadership within an organization are often described—usually by people who don’t hold them—as cushy jobs or a taste of the good life.  But leadership is exhausting work, and it’s often complicated, confusing, and thankless.

But just perfecting a no-look pass or drinking a cup of coffee in zero-gravity, leadership can be learned, developed, and strengthened with practice over time.

And the best leaders, just like that cold, burbling brook on the side of a lonely mountain, tend to quietly do what they’re built to do, which is to serve the people downstream.